SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe strode confidently into a summit of his African peers, took his seat and never flinched — as if daring anyone to challenge his right to rule.
No one in the hall did — in public at least — though some believe he had no right to join African leaders at Monday's summit following a tainted election that extended his long rule of Zimbabwe and brought a storm of Western condemnation.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Zimbabwe should be suspended from the African Union. "They should suspend him and send peace forces to Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections," Odinga said, speaking in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Mugabe's top rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been holed up in the Dutch Embassy in the Zimbabwean capital for a week, said Mugabe is "not the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe. He is usurping the power of the people. He has brutalized his own people."
But at the African Union summit in this Egyptian Red Sea resort, it was clear that any anger at Mugabe — and pressure for him to compromise — was only going to take place behind closed doors.
Key African leaders have long had close ties to Mugabe, renowned as a campaigner against white rule and colonialism. They are also reluctant to be seen as backing the West — and former colonial rulers — against a fellow African, and many can't claim democratic governments in their own countries.
Still, the U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said she believed that in private, summit leaders would "have very, very strong words for him."
"I would suggest that one not take the soft words in an open plenary as a reflection of the deep concern of leaders here of the situation in Zimbabwe," she told reporters.
While many African countries — including regional powerhouse South Africa — have been unwilling to condemn Mugabe, criticism by the U.S. and Europe has only mounted.
France said Monday it considers Mugabe's government "illegitimate," and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the African Union to reject the result of Zimbabwe's presidential runoff.
The summit should "make it absolutely clear that there has got to be change" in Zimbabwe, Brown said in London. "I think the message that is coming from the whole world is that the so-called elections will not be recognized."
Despite the condemnation, Mugabe basked in the opportunity Monday to show regional recognition of his victory, a day after he was sworn in as president for a sixth term following Friday's runoff, in which he was the sole candidate.
In a symbolic gesture of his status, Mugabe entered the conference hall alongside his host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 27 years — one year less than Mugabe — and has come under international criticism for unfair elections. Other African rulers have been in place even longer, such as Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled since 1979, and Gabon's Omar Bongo, since 1967.
In public sessions, there was little overt warmth for Mugabe, but while mingling before the opening session, he hugged several heads of states and other diplomats, said an African delegate who was present.
"He was hugging everyone, pretty much everyone he could get close to," said the delegate, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was closed to the media.
During public speeches in this Red Sea resort, most AU leaders spoke of the "challenges" in Zimbabwe. But they never said anything harsh about Mugabe and focused on other issues facing Africa. A draft resolution written by AU foreign ministers and to be approved by leaders at the two-day summit didn't criticize the runoff or Mugabe — instead calling for dialogue.
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino suggested behind-the-scenes pressure, saying Mugabe's actions have "cast a negative light on some really good, democratic leaders in Africa."
"There are a lot of them who are working very hard to institute democratic reforms in their own way," she said.
Not all African countries were silent.
Senegal's foreign minister, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, complained of the hesitancy to openly pressure Mugabe.
He noted some Africans argue the West should "leave us alone and we be left to decide our own destiny." But when the crisis occurs, he said, "we don't want to talk about it. That doesn't make any sense."
The AU's own election observers said Monday that the Zimbabwe runoff fell short of the group's standards, citing violence and the denial of equal media access for the opposition. Tsvangirai has been holed up at the Dutch Embassy in Harare since announcing his withdrawal from the race June 22.
African diplomats have pointed to Kenya's power-sharing agreement, which ended bloodshed there after flawed elections this year, as a possible model for Zimbabwe.
But unlike Kenya, which brought together two rivals who had been allies and are of the same generation, there is little common ground between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. The 84-year-old president is a veteran of Africa's anti-colonial struggles and Tsvangirai, 56, is a former trade union leader.
Tsvangirai has said he is open to sharing power with moderate members of the ruling party, but says Mugabe should have no role in the government.